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North Sails NEWS

After 100 nautical miles and almost exactly 23 hours at sea, Moon struck Too, Gordon Lawson’s J122, took victory at the inaugural St Kilda Challenge.

Organized by North Uist’s Comann Na Mara, the challenge brought together 27 yachts from all corners of the UK and beyond to a far nook of the Western Isles with a long-held and shared common goal – to reach the alluring, mysterious, rugged cliffs of St Kilda.

Of those 27 boats, 15 of them went in the racing fleet and the remaining 12 cruised in company. Despite having been at sea for such a prolonged period, it was a nail-biting finish between Grant Kinsman’s Sigma 400 Thalia and Port Edgar Yacht Club’s Moonstruck. The fastest boat on handicap, Moonstruck was the only one of the racing fleet to make the return journey in under 24 hours – 22 hours and 59 minutes to be precise. Dublin Bay-based Thalia, meanwhile, sailed in after 24 hours and 31 minutes.

Thus ensued several hours of nervous waiting for the final yachts to arrive and the much-anticipated results – and when they came, they were exceptionally close. In the end, Moonstruck prevailed with a tiny corrected time margin of five minutes and 50 seconds over her rival. An astonishingly tight result after such distance, and so many vagaries of tide, swell and fickle breeze; a real testament to a very long night of grit and determination in some very difficult conditions. And Fraser Gray’s First 40.7 Pippa VI from Helensburgh rounded off the top three with a respectable time of 24 hours and 57 minutes.

In all of the hundreds and hundreds of hours of planning which had gone into this short 24 hour race, it had been expected that the yachts would probably have to dig deep to overcome some perilous seas and howling wind – so typical of even summer weather in this notoriously exposed and blasted outpost of the UK. There were strict guidelines in place about how much wind could actually thwart even a start. Inclement weather could have seen the flotilla shorebound while the racers were set free to pit their wits against the elements. They could all have made the journey for nought.

What had not been expected was yachts peaking at a mere seven knots, struggling against a sometimes unpleasant swell, crews toiling from fatigue and occasional seasickness as windless conditions made pacey progress impossible.

“Sailing in conditions like that is much harder than racing hard in heavy weather,” said race officer John Readman. “It is very hard work to keep morale up and attention span lively when you are wallowing in the sea like that with barely a breath of air and no real sign of any to come.”

Of the 15 racing yachts which started, seven of them judged that discretion was the better part of valour and joined the cruising flotilla – allowing the luxury of switching on the engine. Of the cruisers, just a single one – Sea Fever – actually made the determined journey to St Kilda under sail.

And yet, despite a voyage which had clearly taken its toll and after a well-earned nap, there was universal praise ashore from the participants – both the racers and the cruisers.

Phrases like ‘a mission accomplished’ and ‘a real sense of pleasure and achievement’ pervaded across Lochmaddy’s packed marina. It was an epic in ways few had considered, but an epic nonetheless.

Most regattas are run by yacht clubs or sailing organisations – the St Kilda Challenge, however, was run not only by sailing experts, but by a whole community. A community which had a vision many years ago and has worked tirelessly to bring it to fruition.

“We are exhausted but thrilled,” said Comann Na Mara chairman Gus MacAulay. “The intention is to make this a biennial event, so we will start planning for 2018 shortly.

“There was great camaraderie among the sailors and a tremendous buzz on North Uist. We simply could not have asked for more and I would like to thank all those who helped and collaborated to make it happen.”

Perhaps the greatest achievement of the St Kilda Challenge was for a small community in what cannot be described as anything other than a remote area, to pull together a dream so fascinating that the rest of the country (and a few more besides) wanted to join them.

This content has been shortened from its original version. To read the full-length article, please visit the St. Kilda Challenge webpage.